How the ‘missing middle’ can create affordable infill housing in Ottawa

Architect Toon Dreessen breaks down the barriers to creating four and six-storey developments that integrate into existing communities

We have a housing supply problem. One solution lies in the way we design, approve and construct infill homes.

We need more development within our urban core, especially on our traditional main streets. Think of Bank, Wellington West, Rideau, Montreal, Somerset, Gladstone and Stittsville Main Street. We need more people living and working in these areas to create the dense, walkable communities that make public transit viable and to capitalize on existing water, sewer and hydro services.

Most of these streets are zoned to permit six or eight-storey developments. This building scale is often referred to as the missing middle (#missingmiddle) and is faster to market: design to occupancy could be as little as one to two years, instead of five years or more for tall buildings.

This matters when we’re talking about housing affordability. As the Ontario Association of Architects noted in its 2018 Site Plan Study, larger buildings take longer to approve, adding to the cost of units – which is transferred to owners or tenants.

But planning approval – even for projects that are fully compliant with zoning bylaws and other requirements – takes nearly a year and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for geotechnical studies, design studies, legal fees and other reports.

Once approved, landowners shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars in development charges and put up a letter of credit for site services and landscaping.

In short, unless you have very deep pockets, you could be out well over a million dollars before a shovel even hits the ground. That’s a huge cash flow problem especially for smaller landowners wanting to capitalize on the equity in their land, and forge a stronger community in the city’s core.

Snow studies and wood construction

Here are a couple of other barriers to constructing more “missing middle” housing.

If a new building is going to be taller than a neighbouring building, the developer has to show that the new construction won’t affect the amount of snow that accumulates on the existing building. The only way to do this is to study their roof and, if needed, reinforce it.

Most neighbours might be fine allowing someone to study their roof (especially if they get a new roof out of it) but if the neighbour refuses, the developer has to set the new building back at least five metres from the adjacent property. On an infill site 20 metres wide, this could amount to half the available lot area. 

There’s also a huge leap in construction costs and complexities going from low-rise housing to four-to-eight-storey buildings that’s hard to recoup in sales or rental income. 

For example, wood (as mass timber) can only be used in buildings of up to six storeys. And above three storeys, residential buildings require sprinklers. 

But go a bit higher, and building codes see little difference between a seven and 70-storey building. 

Developers quickly realize that the cost per unit doesn’t work at the scale of the “missing middle.” However, at 10 or 12 storeys, the project becomes financially viable again.

But since that exceeds the permissible height limits on traditional main streets, it is sure to result in a planning appeal or approval delay. To cover the inevitable legal costs and delays, the developer might submit a plan for a 12 or 15-storey building, leaving room for negotiation, tapering and other efforts to get approval in place. That further raises the ire of the community and pits the development industry against homeowners and community groups. Years drag by and no one wins. 

So, what are the solutions?

Planning and design

The city needs to incentivize planning approvals for these desirable developments. If a site is compliant with zoning, planning and overall use, with only a very minor amount of variance (such as increasing height by less than five per cent with no additional storeys), the planning review should be a straightforward compliance check.

City officials should also guarantee planning approvals within three months to save developers tens of thousands of dollars in delays and carrying costs, as well as allow development charges to be paid prior to occupancy of the building; this frees up needed working capital, incentivizing smaller scale developers.

On the design side, we need to collectively advocate for building code changes to give architects flexibility on the scale and size of buildings to create a #missingmiddle to suit individual conditions: raise the threshold for what is considered a tall building to be more than eight storeys and look at evidence-based analysis for safety systems.

With new classifications, we could consider a balance of sprinkler systems, emergency power options (including batteries), fire separations and construction types to incentivize missing middle construction that keeps people safe and housed in affordable, well-built and sustainable buildings. 

We can create the city we aspire to: walkable, moderately dense and sustainable with housing options that keep our communities vibrant. Small policy changes can have a huge impact on the sort of city we aspire to build.

Toon Dreessen is president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and past-president of the Ontario Association of Architects. For a sample of Architects DCA’s projects, check out the firm’s portfolio at bit.ly/DCA-portfolio. Follow @ArchitectsDCA on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.